Hope in An In-Between Abyss

This week’s eNewsletter feature
was written by Rev. Henry Coates,
FPCE associate pastor.

Dear friends,

But what a relief it can be
to befriend contingency,
to meet God right here in the
havoc of chance,
to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.
— Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman is a poet and, like many poets, he seems to capture something both transcendent and immanent in his writings. His book of personal essays, My Bright Abyss, is one that changed my world when I first read it in 2012.

I was living down in New Orleans, unemployed, depressed, and unsure what I was going to do with myself. Everything seemed up in the air about what would come next for me, what direction I should go with my life — and God seemed very distant, very foreign, very unreal.

I had just graduated from Princeton Seminary, didn’t have any immediate career prospects, and I didn’t know if I even wanted to be a pastor anymore. Of necessity, I got a job delivering pizzas on the night shift, so I had my days free. Luck (?) had it that right around the corner from where I was living was a small coffee shop that had nooks and crannies a guy could disappear into and read for hours on end. It was here, in this place, in this coffee shop in the deep, dirty South, that I met Jesus again for the first time. And I met him through Christian Wiman’s book.

Wiman has a rare form of blood cancer. It rightfully should have killed him several times over, yet he’s still alive. (Formerly the editor of Poetry magazine, and a congregant at 4th Pres downtown, today he is a professor of Religion and Literature at Yale.) He wrote My Bright Abyss right after he had received his diagnosis, or death sentence, in a short, curt voicemail. In Abyss, as he is preparing to meet his death, he reflects on what it means to be lost in the depths of God amid the world’s confused brokenness. In between life and death, Wiman found refuge in his bright abyss—his savior Jesus Christ.

My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this.

Christians are an in-between people — we live between the Advents. We just celebrated the first Advent of Christ who came at Christmas, and we look towards the second Advent, when “Lo Christ shall come with clouds descending,” as the old hymn puts it. We are in an in-between moment right now, not sure what it is exactly we all just went through, and unclear about what is coming next.

We can look to the Disciples of Jesus, who after Jesus was killed by the Roman state were bewildered, lost, and in hiding. They did not know that the Cross would lead to the resurrection, but we have the benefit of history’s 20/20 hindsight. Cross always leads to Resurrection. It is the in-between moments that can — and so often do — leave us bewildered.

Here, where we are today, we have great reason to hope; the primary vaccines for COVID-19 are 95% effective (which is truly amazing; according to the CDC typical flu vaccines are about 40% effective). If the vaccines work as most other vaccines do, we have real reason to hope that they will prevent most transmission of COVID-19 as well.

And, just this morning, as I am writing these words to you, we have received word that the vaccines also protect against both the UK and South African variants we have seen in the news lately. We are going to get through this! But the question remains — when? That I can’t answer.

Vaccines are coming, vaccines are here now, but when will everyone be able to get them? Well, that’s contingent on a lot of factors. Unfortunately, it all means we have a lot more waiting to do. Yet, we can take heart; in the waiting— in the “havoc of chance,” as Wiman describes it — we encounter enduring love. God meets us in the contingent, in-between moments of our lives, for he is the Word made flesh who dwells among us.

The fact that I am here now, writing this newsletter article, serving you as your pastor, speaks to this truth: God is with us, even in a time such as this. God was with me, even when I was tired, weak, and worn down in a dusty New Orleans coffee shop.

Keep the faith, friends. We shall get through this.

Henry

hcoates@firstpresevanston.org